7 Steps to Developing Willpower (And a Bonus Tip)

Junk Food

I learned quite late into my life that I had Attention Deficit-Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). But once I learned I did, a lot of things became clear to me including the answer to the question; why do I struggle so much with temptation? For most of my life I believed I was a slave to constantly caving into temptation. Until I unlocked a profound secret.

Developing willpower consists of establish goals, developing your motivation, gaining self-awareness, practicing delayed gratification, creating supportive environments, building resilience, and practicing self care. Willpower is a skill that can be cultivated and harnessed just like any other skill. Even if some people are born with a predisposition to having good willpower, you can still practice and gain it.

Let’s take a dive into each and hold on because this ride could possibly get bumpy! We got a lot of unpacking and introspection to do.

Establish Goals

As simple as this sounds, most people never write down their goals. Writing down goals has a profound affect on our productivity and our psyche. Writing down what you want to achieve alerts your subconscious mind there’s work to do. Even when you are not consciously aware of it, your subconscious is hard at work when it receives instructions. Even if you are not good at writing down goals and following them, that’s ok. Start simple. Write a task list of three items. 1. Write a task list 2. Get out of bed. 3. Brush teeth. As silly is this sounds, doing this is priming your brain that the task list is important and the things on it need to be accomplished!

In our post on The 10 Most Important Leadership Skills, we recounted a story about John D. Rockefeller where when a man once approached him with an envelope labeled “The Secret to Success” and he told Rockefeller he would sell him the envelope for $25,000. Rockefeller asked him, “how do I know what’s in the envelope is genuine?” The man replied, “if you open this envelope and find the contents are, in fact, the secret to success then you will pay me $25,000 otherwise you owe me nothing.”

Rockefeller agreed. Opened the envelope, smiled at the man and then told his assistant to write the man a check for $25,000. So what was inside the envelope? Simply a note that read, “Make a list of things you need to do, and do them.”

Develop Your Motivation

By and large, most successful people will agree that motivation is garbage. Discipline is where it’s at. Motivation implies you have an emotional desire to do a thing. Discipline implies you have a commitment to do a thing, regardless of how you feel. If your goal is to be an Olympic swimmer, there are going to be countless mornings when you are in the pool at 5 a.m. while no one else is awake. That’s discipline. So our urging to develop motivation in this context means figure out why you want to keep going towards your goals. What is your motivating factor to jump in that pool at 5 a.m.?

And again, write it down. There is tremendous power to writing.

Cultivate Self-Awareness

This one, I love. Self-awareness is something few people work towards despite it being so valuable. A cornerstone of developing willpower is understanding how the reward centers in our brains work and why they’re so strong.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will rule your life and you will call it ‘Fate.'”

~Carl Jung~

In the beginning I mentioned I was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult. As a result a I did a lot of reading (yay, hyperfocus!) and learned that people with ADHD have a difficult time with temptation and willpower! Why? Because ADHD people put a tremendous cognitive emphasis on first-order outcomes. What is a first-order outcome? It’s the direct result of any decision. Choices typically have 1st, 2nd, and even sometimes 3rd-order outcomes. For example, the first order outcome of eating a donut would be the dopamine hit from the sugar rush, and the delicious piping hot dough. Mmm.

Anyways. The second order consequence of eating that donut is a spike in blood sugar, calorie gain, carbohydrate loading. A third order consequence a few hours later might be guilt or shame of blowing your diet. Another example is exercise. The first-order outcome of exercise is pain and discomfort. Second-order outcome is calorie burn, better health, lower cortisol levels. Third-order outcome might be weight loss and a better physique.

So, ADHD people put a ton of emphasis on first-order outcomes. That means the urge to slay that donut is overwhelming at times! The pain of exercising makes our whiny brains freak out and throw a tantrum! It’s why ADHD people are far more prone to addiction and depression than a neurotypical person.

The reason I mention all of this, is before I was educated on the matter I just assumed that some unforeseen force was tempting the hell out of me. As the Carl Jung quote says above, my unconscious was ruling my conscious, and I was ruling my life. Gaining that self-awareness helped me understand the strong temptation I experience, is my brain fighting itself! I made a commitment to transform myself into someone who pays attention to second-order outcomes. Because that’s where the rewards are for making good decisions, and that’s where the price is for making bad ones!

Your self-awareness may, and probably does, look entirely different. But that hidden force is there, and it’s up to you to discover it and master it to harness willpower!

Practice Delayed Gratification

Related to the previous point, you can train yourself for delayed gratification by practicing it. Or, make yourself more cognitive of second-order outcomes! Put it in practice in order to develop and sharpen that skill.

7 Steps to Better Willpower

Create a Supportive Environment

People would typically take this tip to mean surround yourself with good, supportive people. And while that’s certainly true and important, it’s not exactly what this tip means. It means our brains naturally tend to be tempted by what we can see or what is within reach. So go and hide your potato chips, sodas, and donuts! Put them out of sight. Instead, set out on your table or common area fresh veggies and fruits. Whatever you are trying to achieve, create your environment for success!

Build Resilience

Your path of self-improvement will be littered with failure. As I tell folks all the time, Babe Ruth struck out more times in Major League baseball games than I ever will. Does that make me a better baseball player? Absolutely not. We here at Arise Tribe love, L-O-V-E, love failure! It is absolutely the best teacher and the pathway to greatness. In fact we wrote an entire article entitled How Should I Handle Failure?

But the flip side of loving and embracing failure is resilience. You have to develop that dog mentality that you are going to keep getting up no matter how many times you get slapped around by life. From now on, you do not stay down! You get hit, you learn, and you get back up. That’s resilience!

“I do not fail. I either succeed or I learn.”

~Nelson Mandela~

Practice Self Care

I am a huge proponent of self-care. And believe it or not, we actually have more willpower when we are rested, properly nourished, and in a peaceful state of mind. The more tired you are, the more worn down you are, the hungrier you are the more your brain has a tendency to focus on first-order outcomes! That means you are more inclined to give into the temptation of eating bad, drinking alcohol, skipping workouts, taking shortcuts, etc. Take care of yourself and keep that first-order guard up!

Bonus Tip: Celebrate Progress, Not Perfection

I want you to congratulate yourself on your progress. Your brain needs to know it’s doing a good job in order to help build and establish new neural pathways (a fancy way of saying forming new habits). But do not make the mistake of beating yourself up because you slipped up and gave in to temptation. If last month you fell into binge eating 7 times, but this month you only did it 3 times. That is progress and should be celebrated! That seems like a controversial idea, but it’s backed by neuroscience. Celebrate people’s improvements. If you focus on how much further they have left to go, discouragement will set in. And the same thing happens when you’re on a path to improvement. If you have negative self talk, you will get discouraged and give up. So keep patting yourself on the back each time you make good choices!

Developing a super-powered willpower will be a transformative experience for you. It will help you achieve goals, be more productive, and get your life in order! Setbacks are normal and expected. That’s where the resilience comes in. Willpower is a cornerstone of discipline and discipline is your path to freedom!

Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@robinstickel

Erik Murrah

Author, nerd, chess player, artist, business owner, runner, mediocre philosopher, outdoorsman. Creator of the Arise Tribe.

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